How Today's Cutting-Edge Surfboards Fly Through the Water Like Wings Through Air

Surfing has been around for centuries, because all you need is a piece of wood. But it's evolved into one of the most high-tech sports in the world. This is the cutting edge of board design, according to three of the top 32 surfers in the world.


You might not think it, but every bit as much thought and design goes into the hydrodynamics of a surfboard as goes into the aerodynamics of an airplane wing. The bottom contours of the board are measured to within a fraction of a degree, then studied to see how water flows underneath them. Yes, surfboards were once literally just planks of wood-usually koa wood, which was very heavy. Then they got fins, to make them more controllable. Then lighter woods started to be used. Then came foam, covered in fiberglass. The three-fin revolution arrived like a ninja star, giving boards more drive and maneuverability.

Today, boards are generally made out of polyurethane foam/fiberglass or epoxy foam/epoxy resin. The epoxy is lighter and stronger, but many guys feel it's too rigid and prefer traditional glass, which may produce a smoother ride. Most often, these boards have a balsa wood stringer that runs down their center line to add structural integrity, though some boards have parabolic stringers that run down the rails—and some have no stringers at all. In average waves, most of the pros ride boards that are about their height. The trend lately though has been shorter, wider, thicker boards. Surprisingly, the wider, fatter boards can be much faster, because their width helps them get on a plane easier, reducing drag.


Fin design plays a critical role in speed and control; their size and angles vary the way they attach to the water. One of the more recent developments is that contest surfers are starting to play with using four fins ("quads") as opposed to the now traditional three fin "thrusters." With two fins on each side the quad channels water extremely efficiently, giving it a ton of drive for when you need to go fast. At the same time it lacks the rear middle fin which gives it stability and a better pivot point.

There's a reason a new surfboard costs 500-600 bucks on average. Tons of R&D and they're all hand-shaped. That kind of love makes each one of 'em special, and when when you're skating across the surface of the ocean on one, riding on a wave of energy, that's some very sweet love indeed.

Big thanks to Jodi Wilmott, Mark Warren, Bede Durbidge, Brett Simpson, Travis Logie, and the ASP.

You can keep up with Brent Rose, the author of this post, on Google+ or Twitter.


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Just wanted to chime in and say that the reason surfboards are $500-600 isn't because they are all hand-shaped, it's because Clark foam went under a couple years back. Since they made pretty much all of the blanks back then, the costs went up when other companies had to fill the void. Most boards these days are shaped by a computer, like Al Merrick's boards.